If you don't love hip-hop music, stop reading right now. It's not the type of genre that's friendly to poseurs hopping on the bandwagon. The reason is mainly that hip-hop is more than just music; it's a culture and a way of life. If you're not living this life, it will show up in your music and rhymes, and the culture will chew you up and spit you out (just ask Vanilla Ice). Hell, if you're thinking about cashing in on a fad, you're better off trying to produce a boy band. By now it's been proven countless times over that hip-hop is not merely a fad but a worldwide phenomenon. 'Nuff said.
Yet something is going on in hip-hop these days that threatens to topple the culture and the beat science. Mainstream hip-hop is suffering from historical amnesia, getting by on gangsta posturing and flava-uv-da-mumph MCs with nothing new to say, backed by production that favors trendy synthesizers over slammin' samples. Not to dis new directions in music, but a lot of the slick new hip-hop largely ignores the raw energy derived from sampled beats, rhymes, and scratching that made hip-hop what it is today.
Thankfully, the hip-hop underground is alive and healthy and full of illuminating cats who manage to make a living while staying true to their roots. We've chosen three of the biggest talents in underground hip-hop production to shed some light on their working methods and inspire the latest generation of hip-hop heads — and that would be you.
Perhaps the best-known producer on our panel, DJ Hi-Tek earned deserved fame for producing the Black Star hits “Respiration” and “Definition/Re:Definition” in 1998. Last year he returned to glory with MC Talib Kweli as Reflection Eternal on the album Train of Thought (Rawkus/Hi-Tek Productions). His latest project is a solo compilation album, Hi Teknology (Rawkus/Hi-Tek Productions), that compiles some of his older material with new tracks and features rhymes by Common, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and others.
Formerly one half of Company Flow, El-P produced the entire Cannibal Ox album that came out in May 2000 on his own label, Def Jux. He's now working on tracks for former Rage Against the Machine singer Zack de la Rocha's solo album, on an instrumental album with Dan the Automator, and on a solo album due out in 2002 on Def Jux. The final Company Flow release dropped in March with four Company Flow tracks and contributions by other Def Jux artists.
With his incredible knack for smooth instrumental arrangements, DJ Spinna has a long résumé that includes both R&B and hip-hop projects with De La Soul, Das EFX, Mary J. Blige, 4-Hero, and Beth Orton. Since 1994 he's remained the sole producer of the straight-up hip-hop act Jigmastas, whose long-awaited debut album, Infectious, recently came out on Subverse.
When it comes to putting down a head-nodding rhythm, all three producers prefer to use sampling workstations. Computer sequencing — and for the most part MIDI or synthesizers — don't even come into play. These producers also tend to dig vinyl for most of their samples. The basic lesson is that if you have a sampling workstation and some dope records, you can throw down your own hip-hop tracks.
Although DJ Hi-Tek samples his drums primarily from vinyl or from live drum performances, he's fond of laying Roland TR-808 kicks behind his sampled bass drums “just to keep it thumping,” he says. Hi-Tek samples his drum hits with a classic Akai MPC 60 sampling workstation.
Having a good ear for the right sounds is as important as being a good programmer, according to Hi-Tek. On top of that, you have to learn sound engineering and how to use effects and signal-processing techniques such as compression. Hi-Tek often leaves his drums raw, or he may run the beats and the individual sounds through compression twice before recording the track, depending on how it all sounds. One of his tricks involves running sounds through his mixing board before sampling them, so that he can “freak” the sounds. For example, he may turn a snare into a hi-hat sound by thinning it out with the mixer's EQ. “When I first started, I was just using straight MPC, cranking the beats out,” he muses. “The more I got into engineering and learning how to run sounds through the board, the more I started expanding.”
For bumping beats, DJ Spinna switches back and forth between an E-mu SP-1200 (which samples at a constant rate of 12 bits, 22 kHz) and an Akai MPC 3000 (which samples at a constant rate of 16 bits, 44.1 kHz, or CD quality). “Lately, I've been using the 3000 a lot because of the memory, clarity, and capability it has,” he explains. “When I want it to be on the raw tip, I go back to the SP-1200.”
“I'm a DJ and a record collector, so I'm real serious about records with breaks on them. I'm coming from that era. That's the vibe I'm coming from.”
— DJ Spinna
From listening to his productions, you might assume that DJ Spinna records many of his beats in real time from a live drummer, but he's never done it that way. He says it's quicker and easier to record a drummer playing some breaks and then chop up the sounds in the sampler. That way the sequenced beats are perfectly synched to the other samples. Timing could be a real problem, he says, if he were to try synching a live drummer to sequenced samples. “I always wanted to be a drummer,” he admits. “I think that's why I pay a lot of attention to drum tracks, programming, and sounds. The drums are the bed. They set the foundation for the whole song.” To get natural-sounding drums, Spinna doesn't edit the samples too much. “I may decrease the decay on a snare to take some of the air off or to get it tight,” he says.
Spinna says he's “big into vinyl” and doesn't like sampling from sample CDs except on the rarest of occasions. “I'm real serious about records with breaks on them,” he states. “Nowadays, especially in the mainstream, you could probably count the number of cats that pay attention to that on two hands.”
Although El-P samples everything from live instruments to CDs to television shows to a clock radio, he also loves to sample vinyl because, he says, “you're messing with something that people spent days trying to mix. You're not going to get any more unique sound than if you're jacking a snare that somebody in the ’60s sat around tweaking on an old analog board for two days, chain-smoking cigarettes, trying to find the perfect sound.” But he'll take that perfect drum sound and clip the start and end points harshly, pitch it up or down, or put envelopes on it to make it his own. Another trick he uses is to sample sounds at extremely high input levels so that they distort. This is just one example of when breaking the rules is the right thing to do.
ON THE MIC
Regardless of the source, all of El-P's drums and other sounds go into his Ensoniq EPS-16+ sampling keyboard workstation. He really likes the EPS's variable sampling rate, which ranges from 11.2 to 44.1 kHz. Almost all of his samples go in at 22.3 kHz because, he says, “it just gives it that little edge.” In fact, edge, grit, and a certain stark quality are important elements of El-P's sound. Often he won't even use hi-hats in his beats. “As long as there is a sparse, hard kind of grit underneath it all,” he says, “I can go off and do however complicated a melody I want, regardless of whether or not it ends up sounding sparse.”
For the most part, the producers we spoke to record vocals well before finishing the music for a track. Beyond that, they have divergent thoughts on the importance of compression, mics, and other factors. El-P is in the unusual position of both rhyming and producing; he says he knows that a beat is finished when rhymes start popping into his head. “I have the curse and the benefit of being a producer and an MC,” El-P says. “The benefit is that I get to make my own beats. The curse is that I don't like to give them to anyone else.”
Mics are only marginally important to El-P. He uses a Røde tube mic and a Shure SM54, which he calls “a raw performance mic with dents in it.” He adds, “I've also recorded songs through headphones. Ultimately, what matters is what sounds right for the song.” El-P recommends placing the mic about four or five inches from the vocalist's face, “so you can catch some of the tail end of the sound,” and recording the vocals the same way you would at a rock show: “It's unnatural for an MC to just stand in front of a microphone and spit his shit. Hold the mic in your hand, move around, do what you need to do.”
El-P usually records vocals onto Alesis ADATs, or sometimes into Pro Tools using a Digidesign Digi 001. He'll do a lot of re-arranging of music after recording vocals, “and that's one of the greatest things about having Pro Tools,” he says. “I lay vocals down and then go back and really pick apart the track. It's a beautiful thing if you want to take one snare out at one spot. It's just really easy.” El-P digs the automation of both Pro Tools and his main mixing board, a Mackie Digital 8-Bus. He can't imagine going back to the days before automation. “For years I used analog boards,” he recalls. “I remember the hell of having to mix an entire song where the process was like some kind of modern-dance performance! For four minutes straight you have to twist knobs, do punches, do drops and fader rides — and if you screw one thing up you have to do that shit again.”
Processing the recorded vocals is one of the trickiest aspects of production. A lot of people assume that vocals have to be compressed, but El-P says he's against compression. “Hip-hop music is not meant to be squashed down,” he says. “It's just not a good sound for me. It doesn't have any edge. I like having the imperfections involved in the whole picture.” EI-P does recommend using the best mic preamp you can afford and dialing in a good parametric EQ for vocals. If you have that, he suggests, you won't need much compression. “It's okay to compress vocals here and there to give it a space that you can't get from just a parametric EQ,” he concedes. “My big objection is really when it comes down to compressing drums and compressing bass. The reason so many hip-hop records sound the same is that everyone is using the same drum machine, and every engineer just squashes the shit out of everything.”
Hi-Tek's opinion differs. “Some people don't stand in front of the mic the right way,” he says, “and you've got to use compression to adjust the way they go to tape.” Capturing the best possible vocal take makes things much easier for Hi-Tek because he can go back and make that vocal gritty if he wants to, but he can't make a gritty recording sound smooth. For that reason, he pays attention to the environment for recording vocals and prefers a nice-sounding vocal booth or room. He recommends using the highest-quality mics and preamps you can afford.
Hi-Tek records vocals either straight to 2-inch analog tape or to an Alesis ADAT or a Tascam DA-88 digital tape machine. He never records into Pro Tools. “I don't like the computer's flat sound,” he says. “You need to have some type of tape sound. It has to sound like a record.” When working with Hi-Tek, MCs usually get just a few bars of a beat to rhyme over, with perhaps a hook or chorus in place. Then, with the vocals recorded, Hi-Tek will build the remainder of the track around them. He'll even cut up vocal parts in the sampler. “The vocal is just another instrument in the track,” he explains. “So whatever we have to do to make it sound good, we do it.”
“A lot of times I'm trying to re-create a feel of a record that I love, something from my childhood. It's like trying to re-create the same feelings that got me in love with the music in the first place, and making it my own.”
A self-described “song structurer,” DJ Spinna is the likeliest of the three producers to sequence an entire song before he tracks the vocals. In some situations, he may have only a main groove for an MC to rhyme over. Spinna might also start by getting bar counts from the MCs, who tell him how many bars they want for each verse and chorus, and then he'll program the song specifically tailored to those counts. “I'm very big on trying to match and complement what the artist is doing,” says Spinna.
He has produced a lot of R&B as well as hip-hop, and Spinna makes the distinction that with R&B you have to pay much more attention to the key and pitch of the vocal, and you must “create a vibe that complements the song,” he notes. However, he often treats both R&B and hip-hop vocals the same way when it comes to using compression, delays, and reverbs. But, he says, “a lot of times hip-hop tracks are just raw. I'll add a little reverb — maybe a slight hall effect that you can't really hear too much — just to add some color.”
I've covered the basics of hip-hop: beats and rhymes. Many old-school hits contained few elements beyond those two. Of course, today's producers drop bass lines and any number of instrumental layers into a track for the melody, hooks, and arrangements.
Like his beats, many of DJ Spinna's keyboard riffs and instrumental lines sound as if they were recorded live, but they're actually samples. He does, however, record session keyboard players on occasion or play his own keyboard licks. Most of his keyboards are pre-MIDI analog synths, so he's not into sequencing. Instead, he samples himself playing. “I can play chords, bass lines, and keyboard riffs, but I'm not a virtuoso type of dude,” he says. “I plan to take intensive, serious lessons at some point, but right now I'm just like a baby with it.”
“I was into it before the whole business part of it. I just was into making music, period — DJing and trying to do a battling crew.”
— DJ Hi-Tek
For bass, Spinna exploits his collection of vintage keyboards, but, he says, you can make a bass tone out of just about anything. “I don't want to reveal my secret,” he says, “but there was a point in time where producers would take tones from certain machines and just sample the actual tone that the machine comes with, because they're really deep and subby.”
Hi-Tek agrees that you can fashion bass lines from just about any type of sound. For example, he says, “Sometimes I use guitars that sound like bass. When recording his own samples, he prefers warm sounds like those of vintage Moog keyboards and old electric pianos. On the Black Star song “(KOS) Determination,” he sampled himself playing Rhodes piano riffs, and rapper Mos Def played Rhodes on the outro. In that type of situation, Hi-Tek will run the Rhodes through an amp, and mic it dry so that he can put effects on it later. He also likes the warm sound of his SSL mixing board and his “old school” Harrison MR3 mixer. Although he tries to avoid the digital sound of a computer and steers clear of plug-in effects, Hi-Tek will use Pro Tools for certain functions, such as making a mono track stereo by duplicating it and panning the two mono tracks left and right.
In contrast to the two Akai MPC users, El-P loves his Ensoniq EPS-16+ sampling keyboard because he can play his own bass lines on it. He'll sequence a bass line on the keyboard's 8-track sequencer rather than resample it as a loop. And he tries to create distinctive bass sounds: “I'll sample this squelching noise from a guitar combined with a horn, pitch it crazy low, loop the end of it, and play a bass line from that.”
Producing Company Flow's all-instrumental (and out-of-print) album Little Johnny from the Hospitul (Rawkus) encouraged El-P to expand what he does melodically. “My intent right now is to do something where the music itself is going to have emotion regardless of whether or not the rhymes are even there,” he explains. Although he admits that his goal isn't a new concept in music, he doesn't think many hip-hop producers are trying this approach these days. “The problem is when the music alone doesn't bring you somewhere and drop you on your ass and pick you up again, like rock and a lot of other music can do,” he continues. “That's the next step for hip-hop production. I'm trying to make records that feel like rock records but are distinctly hip-hop.”
This doesn't mean that El-P will begin recording live musicians for his solo album and other upcoming projects. “I'm firmly entrenched in the art of sampling,” he says. “I take noises and scraps of garbage and things and try to piece them together. That's what I do.”
Lately, El-P makes sequences with loops no less than 8 bars and up to 16 bars long to try to make his music more complex. “Noise or music doesn't need to make sense the instant it hits your ears,” he insists. “It has to make sense by the time the 16th bar rolls around. The listener might not even realize what is happening, but all of a sudden there's a pattern. And that,” he adds with a smirk, “is why I'm a genius!”
Although EI-P, Spinna, Hi-Tek, and many other hip-hop producers may work in very similar ways, the essence of hip-hop is originality — not taking a cookie-cutter approach to making music. “You need to have a complete understanding of what makes classic hip-hop work but not bite,” says El-P. “That's the challenge. With everything we sample, it's all about trying to flip it in a different way. It's very competitive.”
In the Clear
Setting Your Samples Free
DJ Hi-Tek agrees. “I found lots of ways of doing things by listening to other producers. Listen close to other producers and just keep going back to your lab, and you'll figure it out. Eventually, you'll start making your own way of doing things. You might even come up with your own sound.”
Markkus Rovito is the technology editor of Remix and is a part-time musician. He knows all the lyrics to “Straight Outta Compton.”
Despite what major record labels would like you to think, the consensus among our hip-hop experts is that you don't need to clear all your samples, as long as you choose obscure enough records or render known samples unrecognizable. El-P advises using your instincts and being smart when it comes to unearthing cool samples. “I'm not digging through the fuckin' Motown classics,” he snorts. “When you're a producer and a record collector, you just know what to stay away from.”
DJ Hi-Tek likes to chop up, time stretch, filter, and otherwise mutate samples so that they don't require clearing in the first place. “Sometimes I sample just to make a sound,” he explains. “It's not like sampling that whole song.”
Stormin' the Studio
A guide to the producers'equipment
“A lot of times the records I'm remixing are not supercommercial, and I can get away with it,” says DJ Spinna, who also chops up samples or searches for obscure records. “For you to get sued these days, you've got to be on the radar screen. You've got to be charting on Billboard, and after a while people start to scope you. I'm still flying under the radar.”
Still, even the pros sometimes slip up. Hi-Tek reveals that for his solo compilation, there was a song with a sample he couldn't get clearance for, so he had to remake the song without it.
All three agree that it takes originality and forethought to sample successfully. “If I want to flip an Al Green sample,” El-P says, “I have to figure out how to catch it from a point where the shit is unrecognizable or at a point where no one ever thought to catch it from and loop it at that spot.”
- Alesis ADAT digital multitracks
- Avalon mic preamps
- Digidesign Digi 001 with Pro Tools LE
- Ensoniq EPS-16+ sampling keyboard workstation
- Mackie digital 8-bus mixer
- Røde NP2 tube mic
- Shure SM54 mic
- Akai MPC 60
- Alesis ADAT digital multitracks
- Digidesign Pro Tools
- Fender Rhodes electric piano
- Korg Trinity
- Harrison MR3 mixing board
- Moog keyboards
- Røde NP2 mic
- Roland TR-808
- SSL mixing board
- Tascam DA-88 digital multitracks
- Wurlitzer electric pian
- Akai MPC 3000
- Akai S950
- Alesis ADAT digital multitracks
- Arp Odyssey
- Arp String Ensemble
- E-mu SP-1200
- Fender Rhodes electric piano
- Realistic (Moog) Concertmate MG-1
- Roland Juno 60
- Roland Juno 106